‘Tourism can be an agent of change’

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EXPLORER, mountaineer, and ardent defender of ecotourism, Mandip Singh Soin, 55, has received this year’s Tenzing Norgay Lifetime Achievement Award from the President of India. He talks to Ayan Meer about his experiences, the evolution of his discipline and the ecological challenges facing us.

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Holding fort Soin

What does the award represent for you? 
I suppose it is the culmination of 40 years of tramping around the globe, but I hope it is not the final culmination. Adventurers are not used to external recognition, because we do it for our satisfaction. But we’re human too, so if now and then we are recognised, we are happy.

What continues to drive you?
It is the intangible amount of goodness you get. I say ‘intangible’ because we give a monetary value to everything. There are certain things — being on an expedition with friends, finding oneself in a pristine area, discovering fascinating cultures — that have an intangible, priceless value.

How have you seen the mountaineering discipline evolve?
It was mainly the soldiers who practised it – I am not sure they did it voluntarily! But it gave an exposure to mountain climbing, and promoted the creation of mountaineering clubs and climbing schools. We must increase the technical capabilities of the discipline. It starts with creating a sense of adventure.

What has been your most exciting adventure?
To walk in the footsteps of Genghis Khan in Mongolia, to understand how this marauder could conquer so much territory, was stunning. We first walked in the Gobi desert and looked for dinos aur fossils. Then, we trekked in the high mountains — you couldn’t imagine the green, Alpine-like mountains. The people love Indians, perhaps because of the Buddhist connection or the Bollywood influence. You’d get mobbed walking in the street.

And the most challenging one?
In 1986, I climbed Mount Meru in the Himalayas. According to Hindu mythology, it is the centre of the universe. It is a very hard climb. We were four people making a lightweight ascent, which means we carried everything on our backs. We took no tents, and slept on rock shelves or ice platforms. The day before the summit, we ran out of food, and had to sleep using rucksacks. That really pushed us. But we developed incredible friendships, made the first Indian ascent, and no Indian has climbed it since.

Is India doing enough to promote ecologically sustainable tourism?
We had formed a national body — the Ecotourism Society of India — in 2008. We hold workshops to educate the stakeholders of the tourism industry and the government, to tell them: ‘Guys, you have to do this right. If you don’t, you’ll chop the resources you live off’. In India, if you want to climb a peak, the government requires you to pay a royalty: 25 percent of that royalty is kept to redress the ecological situation. We’re not there yet, but moving in the right direction.

Do you think ecological awareness could become part of the Indian mentality?
For many years, we battled with the fact that you have islands of ecological excellence, but filth all around them. I sit on the National Tourism Advisory Council and tourists come up to us, praise the beauty of India, but say: “Do something about the garbage.” The government has kicked off the ‘Clean India’ campaign. We are not going to resolve every problem, but you have to start somewhere. Wherever you can use tourism as a tool to change practices, it is a good step.

Your agency, Ibex Expeditions, is ‘dedicated to those who choose to tread lightly’. How do we make that choice?
Some things are easy to do: if you go camping in the Himalayas, bring back all your non-biodegradable stuff. When choosing a hotel, look at their eco-policy. Offset your carbon footprint by going for a tree-planting drive. These are simple actions, and if people make them part of their process, it can work.

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